William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director

Image of William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director (Screen Classics)
Release Date: 
June 23, 2013
The University Press of Kentucky
Reviewed by: 

“. . . one of the more satisfying books of its genre.”

For the true movie lover, the only pleasure that can come close to matching that of steeping oneself, Norma Desmond-like, in the flickering images of a great movie is wallowing a long, exhaustive, in-depth biography of a beloved filmmaker.

And in terms of all the things that matter—research, organization, access, industry and adulation—William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director by Gabriel Miller hits the mark.

The hyperbolized title aside (Billy Wilder, George Stevens, and Stephen Spielberg, among others might well take issue with the use of “most celebrated”), this new biography of one of Hollywood’s true greats is as engorgingly satisfying as can be.

What Mr. Miller gives his readers is a perfectly balanced blend of personal and professional information. The reader learns, for instance, that Wyler’s brief marriage to the somewhat high-strung actress Margaret Sullivan was stressful enough that, when the director fell into a passionate relationship with the even-more-tightly-wound Bette Davis he chose not to allow his passion to lead to the altar.

Still the two worked together in a total of three classic films, Jezebel, The Letter, and The Little Foxes and won the actress an Oscar for Jezebel. As a result, Davis wrote about the man she called her favorite director in her autobiography:

“It was he who helped me realize my full potential as an actress. I met my match in this exceptionally creative and talented director.”

To move on for a moment to The Little Foxes (the film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play) in order to illustrate a point, perhaps the thing that sets this biography apart from others of its type is how the author interplays in-depth, almost camera shot by camera shot, information on the man’s approach to film direction with bits of insight, anecdotal information on the hows and whys of film production.

Thus, when discussing a key moment in Foxes, the scene in which Davis’ character, Regina, seizes control of the family fortune by simply doing nothing and allowing her husband to die, the author gives insight into Wyler’s approach to the scene:

“At this point, Horace suffers a heart attack and, while trying to reach his medicine, knocks the bottle to the floor. Regina remains immobile, her look dispassionate and hard. She has assumed the role of spectator—though one whose gaze dominates the action. This scene is often praised for its effective use of deep focus, in that it exposes two planes of action at once: Regina’s fixed expression, and Horace in the background, struggling up the stairs to secure another bottle of medicine. The scene, however, belongs to Regina, whose inaction remains the focal point, while our view of Horace is blurred.”

The description recalls the moment in the reader’s mind: Davis sitting upright in a high-backed chair, the camera centered on her in the foreground, as we see her husband played by Herbert Marshall in the background as he attempts to climb the sweeping staircase, each step an increasing agony as he yields to a fatal heart attack.

Here the author goes beyond a description of the virtues of deep focus (a camera technique that allows the viewer to enjoy multiple planes of action simultaneously) to uncover the director’s full motivation for his staging of the scene:

“Wyler does indeed keep his camera focused on Regina’s face, but the viewer also sees Horace climbing the stairs in the background, although his ascent remains out of focus…Wyler, in fact, had extensive conversations with Gregg Toland, his cinematographer, on how to best shoot the scene, but the truth is that his effective camera decision was already set out in Lillian Hellman’s stage directions: ‘Regina has not moved during his climb up the stairs.’

“Also, as Wyler told his daughter, he had another, very practical reason for his decision:

“’Now there was another thing about this scene that nobody knows aside from what we’re talking about deep focus. Herbert Marshall, who played the man, has a wooden leg and cannot go up the stairs like he was supposed to. This is a kind of secret, a professional secret which I am giving away here. If you ever see the picture again, he walks out of the scene and a double comes in the background and he starts going up the stairs, but he’s so far in the background that you can’t tell who he is. He starts going up the stairs and collapses in the middle. That’s when she comes to him.’”

William Wyler is filled with many ah-ha moments in which the whys and wherefores of specific scenes, specific bits of casting and specific Hollywood machinations are revealed. Which makes this one of the more satisfying books of its genre.

To read William Wyler the book is to appreciate both Wyler the man and Wyler the artist. To read it is to be reminded of a career that stretched from 1925 to 1970 and produced a panoply of genre-defying film classics, including two underappreciated pictures from the ’30s, the adaptations of Edna Ferber’s Come and Get It and Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth, as well as The Heiress, Mrs. Miniver, Friendly Persuasion, Roman Holiday, The Children’s Hour, Ben-Hur, and as Wyler’s greatest triumph, The Best Years of Our Lives, and of all things Funny Girl.

The lengthy and satisfying discussion of the work dynamic between Wyler and Barbra Streisand alone is worth the price of the book. (A clue: When referring to the actress in future years, the word he used to describe her was “obstreperous.”)

And yet the author gives much more than movie gossip, he provides the reader with a full consideration of the man’s work, one picture at a time, laid down parallel with a full biographical accounting, until what emerges is a portrait of the man, his passion, his relationships, his creative output, even his politics.

In perhaps the most compelling section of the book, Mr. Miller explores Wyler’s concerns with post-war America, specifically with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and how those concerns found their way both into his quiet support of the Hollywood Ten and, more publicly, onto the screen:

“. . . This film [The Desperate Hours] reflects the anxieties and paranoia of 1950s America. Michael Anderegg likens The Desperate Hours to Donald Siegel’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which some critics have read as a parable of the incursions of Soviet communism, fueled by the HUAC’s investigations of communist infiltration into various aspects of American life . . . Certainly, the HUAC associations implicit in [author Joseph] Hayes’ plot were not lost on Wyler, but his film has a broader political message. Wyler’s concern for America at this time . . . is his fear of conformity and the resultant loss of individuality.”

In author Miller’s hands, the image of William Wyler that emerges from William Wyler is one of a man of excellence, as worthy of study as are his films.

As the author sums up:

“Wyler was often associated with ‘the best’—garnering 12 Oscar nominations as Best Director and winning that award three times, as well as the French Victoire Award and three New York Film Critics Awards as Best Director. His actors were also named ‘best’ by the Motion Picture Academy thirteen times. Few directors could match Wyler’s range, his psychological subtlety, his ability to inspire and encourage actors, his poetic sensibility, or his humanism. Whether or not he was ‘the best,’ Wyler most certainly belongs in the company of the most accomplished and distinguished American directors.”